Do eReaders have a chance to replace paper?

A long time ago, Amazon thought of Kindle as a means to replace not just books (the physical shell of books) but paper itself.

Since that time, a lot has changed. Now Amazon is more enamored by Kindle Tablets and all the multi-tasking digital-content-buying rainbows and unicorns that Tablets promise.

However, the question and the opportunity remains. Replacing paper is, if you think about it, a far bigger opportunity than Tablets.

Do eReaders have a realistic chance to replace paper?

Well, let’s consider what aspects eReaders have to cover to be able to have a shot at replacing paper -

  1. Cheap. Getting to be as cheap as paper is difficult. However, eReaders should be cheaper than they currently are. We are already approaching $50. For eReaders to truly replace paper, we’ll need prices in the $5 to $20 range.
  2. Runs Forever. For this we’ll need solar-powered batteries or some other renewable/infinite energy source. This, however, is a problem on the price front as solar cells aren’t cheap.
  3. Doesn’t break. This is a very problematic area. We have flexible eInk close to being released. However, is it merely ‘hard to break’ or is it really ‘unbreakable’? Also, flexible displays cover just the screen. What about the internal electronics?
  4. Light. We’re close here. eReaders are already in the 5 oz to 8 oz range. That’s good. It would be better to get even lighter eReaders.
  5. Compact and/or Foldable. Flexible eInk displays might be able to address this. There will be issues around making the electronic components fit in with the ‘foldable’ designs.
  6. Writable. This is a big problem area. It’s really, really easy to write on paper. Most eReaders don’t really have handwriting recognition or stylus support. Those, if added, add to the cost. Also, most eReaders have really tacky input methods. Paper is still far quicker for writing and much better suited.
  7. Intuitive. Hard to say whether eReaders can be made as intuitive as paper.
  8. Crisp and Readable. eInk is almost there. eReaders perhaps need 2-3 generations of further improvement before they can rival paper on readability.
  9. Tearable into pieces. This may or may not be possible and desirable. One of the good things about paper and paper notebooks is you can tear off a piece or a page and do something with it.
  10. Easy to Store and Carry and Transport. This is a tough one. eReaders are very fragile. Paper is fragile too – However, it’s easy to store and carry and is fragile in a narrower sense of the word. Flexible eReaders that have unbreakable screens will help make eReaders less fragile. However, we still have a lot of vulnerabilities.
  11. Available in lots of sizes. This is quite a tall order. Kindle DX is selling for $299. For eReaders and eInk to be able to replace paper we need eInk to be splittable and joinable OR available in lots of different sizes. Given that the yield of screens goes down dramatically as screen size increases, thus leading to much higher costs, this might prove to be one of the toughest problems to solve. There’s no easy way to get eInk screens in different sizes while keeping prices low.
  12. Color. With paper you can use different color pens and pencils and crayons and get a lot of different colors. Color eInk eReaders aren’t yet available.
  13. Drawing. Paper allows for easy sketching and drawing. This isn’t possible with eReaders yet (the easy part).
  14. Multiple Color Backgrounds. Not sure whether this will be easy once Color eInk gets developed. For now, all eInk screens have white backgrounds only.
  15. Tactile Feedback and the Feel and Friction of Paper. Paper has a very nice friction and feel to it. In some cases it’s necessary (writing with a pen or paper). In some cases it just gives you a nice feel (turning pages). What can eInk do to afford easy writing (based on friction) and easy tactile feedback?
  16. Long Life. Journals and notebooks last for decades, sometimes centuries. Books last longer. Our eReaders might last 5-10 years if we’re lucky.
  17. Ownership Rights. Everything you buy on an eReader is licensed and owned by someone else. With paper and books you can share and resell and hand it to your kids or their kids.

If you consider all the items in the list above, and any other qualities of paper we’ve missed, it’s a very tall order. The interesting thing is, we’re slowly but surely getting close to knocking items off the list. Companies like Kobo are showing that even if Amazon forgets eReaders and fixates on Kindle Tablets and Kindle Phones, the push to make eReaders and eInk better will continue.

eReaders and eInk have several advantages of their own. This means that eInk doesn’t have to match every item on the above list. It just has to match some of the qualities of paper. After that, the paper qualities it replicates, combined with its own unique advantages, will make it a better choice than paper.

Things eReaders do better than Paper

  1. Reusable. Use a sheet of paper and it’s gone. You can’t really reuse it. With eReaders you can reuse the screen again and again.
  2. Large Storage Capacity. eReaders can store thousands of books or millions of sheets of notes. eReaders with SD cards can store even more. EReaders effectively double up as your bookshelves.
  3. Easy to Search. Want to quickly search through all your books and notes – do a quick text search on your eReader. Much better than having to go through 20 notebooks and 200 books to find what you’re looking for.
  4. Adaptable. You can read books and magazines or search the Internet. You can play a simple game or write a journal entry. eReaders are more adaptable and can be used for lots of different things. Note: This is still heavily limited by the reluctance of eReader companies to open up their devices, especially when it comes to apps that could be used to organize, manipulate, or process ebooks.
  5. Switch between Pages and Books quickly. It’s much easier to switch between books, and to jump around within a book, with an eReader.
  6. Not as Easily Lost. It’s easy to lose a sheet of paper. eReaders are comparatively harder to lose or misplace. The downside is that if you lose an eReader the monetary loss is much, much higher.
  7. Don’t use Trees. eReaders save trees, at least to an extent.
  8. Double up as a Bookstore. You can shop from the eReader itself and get books instantly.
  9. We can come up with more advantages. Hopefully, the above eight advantages gives a good idea of what eInk and eReaders can offer beyond the capabilities of paper and paper books.

eInk basically replaces the physical ‘paper’ and ‘books’ and ‘notebooks’ with digital versions. This makes transportation and replication and browsing and searching much faster and easier. It also provides near-infinite storage capacity and offers lots of possibilities.

eReaders and eInk offer a lot of possibilities that are untapped

We haven’t really seen any ‘open’ ecosystem that allows third-party developers to extend eReaders. In a way, companies making eReaders are holding back eReaders and eInk from what they could be. Imagine if there were a few hundred thousand apps for eReaders – Who knows what creative uses and features 3rd party developers would have figured out.

Most common pain points – poor PDF support, poor organization, no easy way to print, no easy way to get notes off of the device, no easy note-taking, no writing features – would be easily fixed if one or more eReader companies took a more sensible view of what eReaders could be, and how other companies and people could help.

Everything we have seen so far is just the handiwork of a handful of high-strung companies, working in a very tightly controlled environment. Once access to eReaders and eInk gets democratized, we’ll see the features and power of eReaders grow exponentially. It’s almost as if the companies want to hold back eReaders – as if they fear unleashing all the possibilities of eInk.

These companies are restricted by their imaginations and by their need for profit and control. Their vision of what eInk and eReaders could be is far too narrow. Imagine if the iPhone had no Apps. If the Internet had no websites except for a few hundred ‘approved’ by a handful of companies that controlled the Internet.

That’s basically what we’re seeing with eReaders and eInk. A technology and a class of devices that are held hostage by a handful of companies that lack the wisdom and intelligence to leverage the power of hundreds of thousands of third-party developers. Sooner or later, some company is going to figure out that what is truly needed is to set the technology free. Sell screens. Sell blank devices. Let people make apps and accessories that interact with the devices and with the ebooks.

Let the technology grow naturally and freely. You aren’t God, just a gardener.

Even without Apps & Freedom, eReaders and eInk will grow

While companies making eReaders are showing a striking lack of ambition and imagination, the companies making the screen technologies are much more active and are persevering.

Companies like eInk/PVI, Qualcomm, and Pixel Qi are trying out eInk and multi-mode screens in various areas – smart phones, smart watches, tablets, displays. As they keep pushing, they are bound to find some areas that stick. They are also going to run into a smart company sooner or later. A company that leverages all available resources and focuses on replacing paper instead of artificially narrowing down the scope of what eReaders and eInks can do and what they can be.

It’s only when we expand the scope of eInk and eReaders, that we can make real progress. Focusing on books limits what eInk can do. Even simple improvements in vision like trying to add ‘writability’ will result in big jumps. The real progress and biggest jumps will happen when companies focus on replacing paper in all senses of the word. Right now it’s as if they’ve inherited a car and are using it only to exercise horses.

So what happened to all the other uses of eInk?

The Kindle and Nook use eInk, and it’s marvellous.

Which makes you wonder – Why isn’t it used in other devices and for other uses?

There are a few small watch companies making eInk powered watches.

Update: Thanks to Common Sense and Maxine and Russ for some more uses of eInk.

We have a technology that has helped transform Publishing, one that does some pretty amazing things such as not use any power to display an image and power a device to 1 month of battery life. It really should be used for a lot more uses.

What else could eInk be used for?

Let’s make some wild guesses -

  1. Displays on other devices.
  2. Price Tags in stores.
  3. Notebooks.
  4. Outdoor displays. Tack on a solar cell to an eInk display and you have a great low-cost display.
  5. Posters and even wallpapers.
  6. Medical Charts.
  7. T-Shirts. D A N C E.
  8. Labels to use around the house. Peel a label off one jar, change the caption, and put it on another jar.
  9. Reflectors – Switch eInk to all-white when you want more light, and switch to all-black when you want less light.
  10. Board Games – Scrabble where you don’t have to place letters on boards.
  11. Name Tags.

The one thing that keeps coming up is the lack of color. In fact, once color eInk is cheap and plentiful we might see some drastic changes.

Color eInk Uses

Well, here are a few possibilities -

  1. Color eInk instead of Advertisement Posters and Hoardings.
  2. Color eInk Sheets handed out instead of flyers.
  3. Menus that use color eInk instead of paper.
  4. Clothes. Sooner or later someone is going to figure out that clothes that can change color and patterns to match the rest of your outfit are a killer idea.
  5. Heating and Cooling. eInk Panels outside houses – In summer they are all white and reflect out heat. In winter they are all black and transfer heat indoors.
  6. Replace screens of all sorts.
  7. Traffic Lights. Instead of having lights that consume a lot of energy we could use eInk to run lights (at least during the day) using very little energy.
  8. Public Signs.
  9. Road markings and dividers. eInk reflects so it’s a good candidate. This might be a bit of a stretch.
  10. Shipping Labels. Re-use the same label 10,000 times.
  11. Accessories. Bracelets that can change color to match your clothes.
  12. Color eInk panels and labels built into devices and bags and books – Set your name and address and then you never have to worry about tags and address labels.

I’m still stuck in the box of thinking of eInk as mostly a paper replacement. There have to be more ways of using color eInk. The Arizona State research team is building wearable solar-powered eInk panels for soldiers. There are just so many possibilities.

Why aren’t people implementing newer, other uses of eInk?

In a way all of us readers are helping take eInk to a stage where it is cheap enough to power lots of other uses. Currently, 6″ black and white eInk panels are probably $40 to $60, and 6″ color eInk panels are probably $50 to $100.

We may, in 2 to 3 years, hit a point where the same sized panels are $2 for black and white eInk and $5 for color eInk. At that point a lot of other uses (posters, labels, clothes) become viable.

eReaders are the first market eInk is taking over/creating. Over the course of the next 5 to 10 years we might see eInk show up in a lot of surprising places.

Kindle 3 shortages possible, 10 million+ eReaders in 2010 – eInk maker

The possibility that the Kindle 3 will run into shortages is brought up in a report in the Taipei Times covering eInk maker PVI/eInk. Lots of interesting snippets about eReaders from that and other articles so let’s dive in.

eInk Holdings Inc. on the Kindle 3

Taipei Times brings us lots of Kindle 3 and eReader insights from eInk maker eInk/PVI -

world’s No. 1 e-paper display maker said operating income spiked 76 percent last quarter, thanks to strong demand for e-­readers such as the Kindle

We are very satisfied with the growth of e-reader sales … Amazon’s new Kindle is outfitted with our new-generation Pearl e-paper display and supply could become tight as pre-sales are excellent,” company chairman Scott Liu told investors.

That, to some extent, countered concerns about iPad’s erosion of consumer support for e-readers, said Liu

The other interesting parts -

  1. 65% of eInk’s revenue comes from ePaper displays.  
  2. It says it doesn’t see substantial progress by any of its ePaper rivals.
  3. eInk is ready with colored eInk displays and China’s Hanvon will be the first company to bring those to market.
  4. Sales of eReaders are expected to double to 20 million next year.

Interestingly, eInk also makes flat panels for the iPad (think it is one of two or three suppliers).

Kindle DX shipments tripled with DX 2, over 10 million eReaders this year

DigiTimes has the scoop on the impact of the Kindle DX 2 -

Shipments for the 9.7-inch Kindle DX tripled when Amazon reduced the prices for the model to US$379 from the previous US$489, Liu noted,

That’s pretty impressive. Didn’t realize that the price-cut and the eInk Pearl screen made such a huge difference.

eInk/PVI also predicts over 10 million eReaders sold in 2010 -

Price-cut competition for e-book readers among global vendors including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Hanvon is expected to stimulate demand in the second half of 2010, with total shipments expected to be 2-3 times those in the first half,

… worldwide e-book reader shipments are expected to exceed the previous forecast of 10 million units in 2010 due to vendors’ price cuts

Mr. Liu also made a few interesting points -

  1. He expects that companies who don’t have content support might be forced out of the market due to low prices on the Kindle 3 and Nook (he mentions B&N so perhaps he knows something we don’t). 
  2. eInk’s Clients have already hit enough sales volume for special discount pricing to kick in.
  3. Soon vendors will be able to provide sub $100 eReaders (He said – judging from the market growth).

It’s remarkable that 7 months into 2010 the eReader companies have already hit enough sales to get bulk discounts on ePaper. With the lower prices of Kindle 3 and Kindle WiFi (and perhaps of Nook 2) eInk/PVI’s prediction of over 10 million eReaders being sold in 2010 might come true.  

eInk launches two touch capable eInk screens

DigiTimes reports on two touch screen solutions from eInk (perhaps we see them in Kindle 4 or in Kindle DX 3) -

E Ink has recently launched two EPDs, one of them being a capacitive touch solution and the other an electromagnetic one, Liu said.

The EPDs are currently being validated by clients, and the company expects products featuring the new panels will hit the market by the end of 2010 or at the beginning of 2011, he said.

Wonder where the Sony Reader Touch Edition’s screen fits in – Haven’t we had that for over a year and isn’t that eInk based touch?

DigiTimes also has good coverage of color eInk -

China-based vendor Hanvon has adopted its color EPD and is scheduled to launch e-book readers using the color EPD in the fourth quarter, Liu said.

E Ink’s latest Pearl EPD with color filter (CF) … will have better response time and reflection, Liu explained, 

… E Ink expects color e-book readers to account for 10% of the global e-book reader market in 2011.

Perhaps PVI/eInk thinks color eReaders will only have 10% market share because they will be markedly more expensive or not as good as black and white eInk. If color eInk is simply a color filter over eInk Pearl then the latter seems to be the likelier possibility.

It’s all very remarkable.

Summary – Good Times ahead for Kindle 3 and eReaders

It seems that the Kindle 3 is doing very well and is expected to continue to do well. The main takeaways -

  1. Kindle 3 shortages possible – in my opinion they are quite likely. 
  2. The Kindle WiFi might hit sub $100 prices by end of the year. As might a few other eReaders.
  3. eReaders sporting 2 new touch capable eInk screens might arrive by end 2010 or early 2011.
  4. Hanvon might bring an eInk Pearl based color screen eReader to market in Q4, 2010.
  5. 10 million+ eReader sales in 2010.
  6. 20 million eReaders might be sold in 2011.
  7. eReaders and eInk are both doing just fine.

The sad part is that eInk/PVI seems pretty confident it doesn’t have any viable competitors and it does seem that way. The really good part is that it’s likely the $139 Kindle WiFi will hit the $100 mark by end 2010.

Kindle DX 2 screen contrast improvement analysis

The improved Kindle DX 2 screen contrast is its big selling point. Amazon hasn’t really revealed too much about what led to this improved screen contrast.

Well, let’s take a closer look and see what factors might have helped improve the Kindle DX 2’s screen contrast.

Kindle DX 2 Screen Contrast Improvement – possible Factors

Here are the 3 factors that we can identify right away -

  1. Actual hardware improvements. eInk say the Pearl screen has 10:1 contrast as compared to the 7:1 contrast in previous versions. Quite frankly it doesn’t really seem like the hardware improvement by itself is 43%. In terms of measurements we have this from Bruce Wilson’s comment at Teleread -

    From density numbers alone – white is a little whiter, black is a lot blacker.

    Old White Kindle DX 1 (6 months old):
    white area density = 0.46, Lab = (65.8, -2.3, 0.6)
    black area density = 1.30, Lab = (26.6, -1.0, -2.2)

    New Graphite Kindle DX 2:
    white area density = 0.42, Lab = (68.2, -2.4, 0.9)
    black area density = 1.58, Lab = (18.5, -0.1, -3.6)

    I used a Datacolor Spectrocolorimeter model 1005. “Lab” is a color space measurement like RGB, only for print.

  2. Graphite Casing. Amazon have implied this is not factored into the 50% better contrast – However, it’s clear after playing around with the Kindle DX 2 that the graphite casing has quite an important role in making the screen look better.  
  3. Speckling on the Screen. There are very tiny speckles on the screen of the Kindle DX 2 when you zoom in. Click on the last photo on the Kindle DX 2 Photo page to see this speckling. When photos have noise like this added to them it improves their contrast – It’s hard to believe there could be any other reason speckling would be added to the screen of the Kindle DX 2.

We also have two additional possibilities –  

  1. Software improvements. Kindle software upgrades have improved Kindle screen contrast in the past by making the text bolder and it’s possible that Kindle DX 2 comes with some software improvements. Kindle DX 2 comes with firmware version 2.5.5 and it makes you wonder if that firmware version includes screen contrast tweaks.
  2. Additional changes in the screen hardware. There’s a very interesting mention in the official Kindle forum that the Kindle DX 2 screen is noticeably whiter if you tilt it a little rather than look at it straight on. For my Kindle DX 2 this is true – It’s noticeably whiter when tilted a little. Is this by design? Is this a byproduct of the new screen technology?  

The former is very, very likely while we understand too little about the latter to factor it in.

Breaking down the supposed 50% screen contrast improvement

After shooting a lot of Kindle DX 2 videos and taking a lot of photos and comparing screens in all sorts of lighting conditions it seems to me -

  1. Compared to Kindle 2 Global – Kindle DX 2 screen is 25% to 30% better normally, 30% better in sunlight, and 30% better when Kindle DX 2 and Kindle 2 are both tilted a bit. 
  2. Compared to Kindle DX 1 – Kindle DX 2 screen is 40% better normally, 45% better in sunlight or when both are tilted a bit.

There isn’t really a 50% improvement in screen contrast. It’s 40% to 45% when compared with Kindle DX 2 and 25% to 30% when compared with Kindle 2 Global. 

Furthermore it seems that this 40% improvement is broken down into -

  1. Half due to hardware improvements. If the spectrocolorimeter readings are correct hardware improvements might be responsible for as much as three-quarters of the improvement.
  2. A quarter due to the graphite casing. 
  3. A quarter due to the speckling.

The Kindle 2 Global screen is much closer to the Kindle DX 2 ‘better hardware screen’ than the Kindle DX 1 screen. This might be due to software tweaks or International Kindle 2s getting better screens or perhaps my Kindle 2 global was an exceptionally good version.

How did 50% screen contrast improvement and a graphite case and speckling and possible software improvements add up to 40%?

Well, it seems that eInk messed up and Amazon did as much as they could to make up for it.

Seriously – Look at the videos and photos. If you happen to have any of the earlier Kindles and the Kindle DX 2 compare them in various lighting conditions. If eInk’s claim is valid and there’s a 50% screen contrast improvement then it means that the graphite casing and the speckling and the software improvements (if any) contributed minus 10%.

The far more likely case is that eInk did a terrible job with their screens and improved just 20%. Then Amazon did a lot of brainstorming and came up with the graphite case and the speckling design for the screen and software improvements to get to 40%.

Amazon better hope Pixel Qi or Qualcomm Mirasol deliver color eInk screens soon because Amazon can’t keep compensating for eInk’s inadequacies with software upgrades and smart design decisions. The new Kindle DX 2 has managed to use almost every design and software trick possible to improve screen contrast (we’re including font sharpness improvements in the Kindle 2.5 upgrade). It’s had to because the actual screen technology from eInk isn’t improving fast enough.

Quick Summary 

Yes, Kindle DX 2 has a noticeably better screen. No, eInk isn’t responsible for all of the improvement. If eInk really would have improved their eInk screens 50% we would be looking at 70% to 75% better screen contrast on the Kindle DX 2.

PVI supplies Kindle, iPad screen technology

If you thought it was impressive that PVI/eInk supply screens for the Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook, and pretty much every dedicated eReader device, wait till you hear this (via Electronista and Wall Street Journal) -

Hydis Technology Co., Prime View’s South Korean subsidiary, … provides a key display technology used in Apple Inc.’s iPad …

… the technology, known as advanced fringe field switching, that widens the screen’s viewing angles and improves visibility

Apple refers to the technology as IPS – in-place switching.

PVI’s IPS technology and LG Display ties

Here’s a little more on PVI’s in-plane switching technology from DigiTimes -

The Hydis-developed FFS technology has been further developed into AFFS (advanced fringe field switching) and AFFS+. The benefits of AFFS technologies include readability under sunlight, low power consumption, wide viewing angle, fast response time and high brightness, PVI said.

Note that the iPad does not have the readability under sunlight promised in AFFS (perhaps it has FFS, AFFS’ predecessor) – However, it does indicate that a future version may well be readable in sunlight.

WSJ fills in some details on how PVI technology got into the iPad -

Prime View in December signed a cross-licensing pact with LG Display Co., which analysts have said is likely one of the iPad’s flat-panel suppliers.

LG Display said that it would invest $30.5 million in Hydis through a bond purchase, following a $10 million investment in Prime View

Electronista point out that there is a $500 million Apple-LG Display deal -

Apple hasn’t confirmed the deals and doesn’t normally divulge which companies supply its individual components. It did recently strike a $500 million deal with LG Display to produce screens across its lineup.

It’s interesting to see PVI gradually grow and expand. The deal with LG Display in December 2009 was their second major deal of the year. PVI had bought eInk Corporation of Cambridge Massachusetts in June 2009 for $215 million.

PVI shows off new eReader Screen technology

T3 has two videos of new eInk screens from PVI that are promised to reach eReader makers by end 2010 and customers by end 2010 or early 2011. Great to know that technology that should have arrived a year ago is still a year away.

Here’s what’s promised -

improvement from the standard 7:1 contrast ratio screens – to the much easier on the eye 12:1 ratio – and a faster refresh rate. E Ink claims this refresh rate is fast enough to support simple animations.

Another prototype shown boasts a larger flexible display with claims from E Ink that it’s tough enough to take a fair size impact without it blinking a single pixel.

On the plus side the eInk display in the first video has excellent contrast.

Companies that profit from both Kindle and iPad

There are lots of companies that are profiting from both Kindle and iPad -

  1. PVI is perhaps one of the most critical since they supply the key screen technology for both Kindle and iPad.  
  2. FoxConn – It manufactures the Kindle and Apple devices like iPhone – making it likely it’s also manufacturing the iPad. 
  3. Amazon – Yes, that’s right. Kindle for iPad’s 480,000 books and worldwide availability is much more impressive than the iBooks’ 60,000 books and US only availability.
  4. Newspaper and magazine publishers.
  5. Book Publishers.

It’s an interesting thought – while the Press keep playing up the Kindle vs iPad angle, multiple companies, including Amazon, just see them as two separate channels/devices that can both be a source of profit.

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